You know how it goes with reality TV. Once an idea starts working, everyone else wants a piece of the action -- that's why we have so many shows about storage lockers. So it may not have been a surprise that once "Naked and Afraid" took off on Discovery last summer -- that's the show in which two people survive the outdoors in the buff -- TLC's "Buying Naked" and VH1's "Naked Dating" were soon in the works.
After all, there's nothing like throwing the word "naked" in a title to get everyone giggling and also maybe tuning in to watch. That's what network executives bank on, and it's worked. The "Buying Naked" specials that aired last year did so well that TLC ordered a whole season. The show, which follows realtor Jackie Youngblood as she sells property in the popular nudist area of Pasco County, Florida, debuted last month. ("Naked and Afraid" just started new episodes on Sunday nights, while "Naked Dating" premieres Thursday.)
So how do actual nudists feel about these shows that depict their very niche lifestyle? Two executives from the American Association for Nude Recreation have some thoughts on the topic and shared them by phone from the Avalon Resort in West Virginia, a popular nudist destination.
To sum up? "I think it's kind of a mixed blessing," said Bill Schroer, the association's executive director. He does like the fact that more people are finally being exposed (sorry) to the idea of what's known as "social nudity," with regular people going about their daily lives -- they simply happen to go clothes-free. That's true especially on "Buying Naked," which is mostly set in a real-life nudist community. On the other hand, shows like "Naked and Afraid" add the nude element to throw in another twist to a dramatic situation.
"Most nudists don't live in a survivalist environment," Schroer pointed out. "That's kind of unreal . . . and starts to border on sensationalism. In other words, the nudity is just there to attract attention."
On "Naked and Afraid," a pair of adventurers work together to battle the elements without a stitch of clothing. (On TV, certain areas are blurred in the front, but not in the back.) In the season-opening episode, two strangers coexist as they traipse across the savanna in Namibia. Challenges include lack of food, and, in this particular circumstance, a thorny landscape provides potential trauma.
The nude recreation association's president, Susan Weaver, is hesitant to uniformly praise the trend -- she stresses that because people already have so many questions and possible misconceptions about the nudist lifestyle, it would be ideal to keep things as real as possible. On reality TV, she acknowledges, that's almost impossible. For example, in "Buying Naked," the couples looking for houses tend to be on the attractive side. And most people in the nudist community look, well, like normal people.
"I think calling them 'reality shows' is a misnomer," Weaver said. Though she wishes the shows would rely on actual nudists to participate -- instead of the "rookie" nudist enthusiasts who just happen to be beautiful -- she enjoys the fact that her beloved community is getting more publicity.
"I do like the emphasis on the nudist environment; we are now recognized as a special set of people who constitute both normal and unusual in the same way," she said. "That we are normal as everyone else but have found an additional dimension to life that gives us so much pleasure -- the desire to show that to the public is very admirable."
TLC's "Buying Naked" frequently illustrates some of the details you wouldn't necessarily know about nudist life. The episodes feature basic etiquette, including: "Nudists greet with handshakes. Hugging is not recommended." Also good tips: "Keep your eyes up" and "Don't giggle." Plus, there are specific things that go into buying a home that are important. Nudists, as it happens, do not want a house that contains sharp corners -- particularly at waist level. Other standard parts of a house might also represent a safety hazard (too much carpeting might cause rug burn), which is where Youngblood and her team come in to help navigate tricky situations.
Mike Kane, TLC's executive producer for "Buying Naked," said that much care is taken to keep the show lighthearted but never make fun of the nudist lifestyle. He said the specials helped "earn the trust" of the nudist community, which had a very positive response to the episodes.
The viewing audience, which may have flipped to TLC because of the provocative title, apparently felt the same way. "You can come in for the shock value, but you'll end up getting hooked because of good stories," he said. "Real people doing real things -- just without clothes on."
Both the nude recreation association's Schroer and Weaver hope people tuning in will see that's the case and recognize the positives of a nude lifestyle, which they say includes emotional, physical and spiritual benefits. Body acceptance is also a fundamental component of nudism. Once you strip away (again, sorry) all pretenses of worrying about how you look, you can get to know people on a whole new level.
That's supposedly the premise of "Naked Dating," on which two people take off their clothes and see if that helps them decide if they're right for each other. The nudity "was really a storytelling device that was about something -- the search for true love and what happens when you throw away your inhibitions," VH1's executive vice president of original programming, Susan Levinson, told TheWrap about the series.
Schroer and Weaver seem cautiously optimistic that giving their lifestyle more exposure (last one, promise) will increase its popularity. As of 2012, the nude recreation organization served 213,000 individuals and 260 affiliated clubs. Nude recreation is reportedly a $440 million industry, although it is much more popular in Europe.
Still, they mostly hope these reality shows remain at least somewhat real. "The idea is that anything that uses nudity to sensationalize the topic is something that we would largely be concerned about," Weaver said. Schroer agreed but said it could still be a positive experience.
"Any time," he said, "we see 'social nudity' being used in the context of people living a kind of normal life and living as normal people, which is how nudists live, that's great."